This week we read three cases on the Supreme Court’s rulings on the right to privacy, and whether or not this right is guaranteed in the Constitution (specifically by the ninth and fourteenth amendments). All of these cases deal specifically with the right to reproductive and sexual privacy, but two in particular — Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade — prove that in regards to the Supreme Court, the fight for women’s rights is intricately linked with the rights to privacy.
The Supreme Court has played, and continues to play, an important and unique role in determining the rights of women in the United States. Throughout American history, but particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, individual women and women’s groups fight, protest, and demand more equal treatment in a democracy where they are supposed to be treated equally under the law. Congress on the other hand, both creates the laws that women may object to, as well as laws that respond to this female outrage over inequality. And the President symbolically leads the nation in their stance towards women’s rights, and sets the agenda for how to further supplement the rights that women hold. The Supreme Court deals with women’s rights issues in a much different way though, having the unique ability to interpret the Constitution and the ways in which is applies to the rights of women.
Griswold v. Connecticut for me stands as particularly ground-breaking, in that such a powerful decision on women’s right to privacy came in 1965, well before the second wave of feminism took a strong root in the larger American discourse. Justice Douglas matter-of-factly lists and explains the amendments to the Constitution that guarantee the right to privacy, and relates them to the rights of married couples to use contraceptives. This is the first case that the Supreme Court rules on in which the bench deals directly with a woman’s right to freely use contraceptives, but argues for it in a way that deals with married couples, not individual women. Justice Douglas states:
Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship. We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights — older than our political parties, older than our school system.
So while this case on the surface deals only in these rights as the apply to the married couple, Griswold v. Connecticut undoubtedly shaped future Supreme Court decisions on the rights of individual women and their right to privacy in matters of reproduction.
Roe v. Wade is to this day one of the most infamous and controversial decisions that the Supreme Court has ever handed down. Justice Blackman penned the Court’s opinion, tracing the history of abortion restrictions, arguing that the rights of privacy do apply in the case of abortions, and ultimately strike down Texas’ ban on abortions, effectively legalizing abortions in the first three months of pregnancy. Even though Justice Blackman ultimately (and similarly to Griswold v. Connecticut) makes the decision in regards to the relationship that a woman has with her doctor, it still allowed for the individual woman’s right to have a legal and safe abortion. Justice Blackman states:
The right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.
The Supreme Court holds a unique place in advancing the rights of women in the United States, but it is interesting that when we think of Supreme Court decisions that deal with women’s rights we first think of cases that deal with women’s privacy in their reproductive lives. As I linked above, there are a plethora of Supreme Court cases that deal with a wide variety of women’s issues, but the ones on reproductive freedoms stand out as the most well known. Why is this? I believe it is due to the fact that there is an enormous gap between the reproductive rights that are afforded to men and the reproductive rights that are afforded to women. These are rights that are intrinsically linked to the body, and becomes very personal to the feminists and women’s rights advocates who fight for them. Even though over forty years have passed since Roe v. Wade, women in this country are still fighting for equal reproductive freedoms that are, in fact, guaranteed by the Constitution. And only when these rights are fully achieved, can Supreme Court decisions on other — equally important — areas of women’s rights become truly salient in the public discourse.